Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a terrible thing

There are many, many reasons why the "pink ribbon" campaign isn't always a force for good.

Models pose in pink at the launch of this year's Breast Cancer Campaign
Models pose in pink at the launch of this year's Breast Cancer Campaign. Photograph: Getty Images

In the past month, a surprising number of things have turned pink.

Debenhams, for instance, and the t-shirts of the chuggers outside the station in the morning. This porn website (SFW), too, and your friends' Facebook profile pictures, and Heathrow Airport.

We all know why, even if we don't give it much thought. We've now arrived at the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or as it's also sometimes known - October.

I, like everyone who will read this and everyone who won't, has loved someone who has died of cancer. Not necessarily breast cancer (we'll get to why that distinction is important shortly) but cancer. Research that can prevent deaths and ease suffering is without any doubt a good thing. Giving your money to aid and advance that research is similarly a wonderful thing. And yet I find myself unable to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month and everything associated with it.

It's a tricky case to make, this. I've just said I'm all in favour of donating to cancer research, so why am I so against what is essentially an extremely well-orchestrated marketing campaign aimed at getting people to do just that?

Let me explain.

Firstly, I despise the way campaigns like this invite you to advertise your altruism publicly. There's something terribly Victorian about the need to pin something on your lapel or post something on your Facebook in order to show off your good works – in the olden days, you might have unveiled a special plaque with your name on it on a hospital wall. Donating money to any charity should be, and for many people is, a considered and personal decision. There's no need to involve anyone else by boasting about it on Twitter or wearing a sticker. If that is an important part of your donation, you probably need to examine why you wanted to contribute in the first place. And I know there's an argument that says “who cares how the money comes in, as long as the charity gets it”, but I disagree - it does matter how and why the money gets there. What if the prevalence of the pink pressures someone into donating to breast cancer research who was previously more inclined to support leukaemia research or a development charity? Relativism and comparison aren't our friends here.

Then there's all the pink. The colour pink has certain longstanding connotations - femininity, prettiness, girlishness - that firmly associate it with women. But men get breast cancer too (it’s rare – in the UK, about one man is diagnosed for every 130 women) and it's probably fair to say that on top of the horror of such a diagnosis, it isn't helpful to be informed by every billboard, bus shelter and badge that you pass that you've got a "girly" disease. Not even all women who get breast cancer will be attracted by its association with the colour pink and the kind of models who often front retailers' pink ribbon campaigns. For anyone who has direct experience of cancer treatment, it's impossible to see such campaigns and comprehend how they can pretend have anything to do with the realities of coping with the disease, which, let's be honest, involves a lot of waiting around in hospitals, a lot of pain, a lot of vomiting and very little pink.

There’s also something of a trend towards sexualising such campaigns – for instance, “save the boobies” merchandise or events like “Race to Save Second Base”. As Australian blogger Melinda Tankard Reist has pointed out, all of these elements transfer the concern from the wellbeing of the woman to the wellbeing of her breasts by appropriating language that is usually used to express sexual desire. The existence of “breast appreciation galleries” and the involvement of porn sites demonstrates just how far this has gone – whatever the claim, that’s most definitely not about raising money for research attempting to cure a disease any more. It’s even worse when you consider that many women end up having a single or double mastectomy as part of their treatment – the campaigns are focusing in on the very aspect of a woman that she could be about to lose in traumatic and painful circumstances. Xeni Jardin has written about the anger and distress this causes patients - it's not to be taken lightly.

And how about all the other conditions that get drowned out by all the pink? Things like bowel cancer, for instance, or pancreatic cancer, are much less easily packaged into an attractive marketing campaign, but could really do with some cash. Or even heart disease, which kills three times as many women as breast cancer. Do you even know what colour leukaemia research's badges are? Again relativism isn’t particularly helpful here – it’s not a case of robbing one charity to give to another, but just wanting them all to get something approaching an equal hearing before we decide whether to put our hands in our pockets.

The pink ribbon is also used by companies to sell things, and as a brand-enhancer. "Cause-related marketing" is a real thing - even if the company makes no money whatsoever from the be-ribboned product, they may well persuade a new customer to buy from them for the first time purely because of the association with a good cause, or it may drive traffic to their website, indirectly resulting in a boost in their ad revenue. Often, there’s question marks over how much of the money you spend on a "pink ribbon" product even ends up with a breast cancer research charity – the Think Before You Pink campaign has documented many examples of “pink-washing” for profit. There's also a sense that breast cancer is an "easy sell" when it comes to charitable giving - hence its corporate popularity. Breast cancer also doesn't come with any awkward hangups to do with the sufferers' lifestyle - unlike, say, HIV or lung cancer. As diseases go, you could say that it’s a pretty friendly one.

What do my problems amount to, then? Breast cancer isn’t an undeserving cause, and other cancers aren’t any more “worthy”. If you withhold money from it because you don’t like some of the campaigns associated with it, you’re potentially harming people who are living with the disease, but if you continue to donate, your action can be twisted into evidence that those tactics work. Apart from pointing out the worst of it and hoping those responsible get the message, there’s little we can do. Such a disproportionate and occasionally offensive focus on one facet of a single disease isn’t helpful. It’s just lazy.

Anyway, as one door closes, another opens – tomorrow is the start of “Movember”...